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International Socialism, Autumn 2000


Boris Kagarlitsky

The suicide of New Left Review


From International Socialism 2:88, Autumn 2000.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


For 40 years, New Left Review (NLR) was a symbol for the radical intelligentsia throughout the world. The articles carried in it were more successful or less so, and the points of view presented in it were astonishing for their superficial radicalism or for their toothless moderation. Nevertheless, for all leftists who read English, the journal remained a source of information on contemporary Marxism. New names appeared on its pages, and discussions of fundamental importance revolved around views expressed there. Although NLR was published in Britain, and most of its authors were based there or in the US, it was not only open to writers from other countries, but in its essence, approach, structure and ideology, constituted an international publication. Now this journal is no more. There is another journal which bears the same name, but this latter periodical is fundamentally different, based on a diametrically opposite concept.

From January 2000 NLR changed its editor, design and numbering. Before us we have number one, a little exercise book formatted in postmodernist style. The subhead Second Series seems to presume that the journal will survive for another 40 years, and that there will perhaps be a third and fourth series. The change of concept is declared in a foreword by Perry Anderson, under the expressive heading Renewals. Perry Anderson, who succeeds Robin Blackburn as editor, is not someone new to NLR. He was present at the very birth of the journal. The makeup of the editorial board is also practically unchanged. We are not talking about an infusion of fresh blood; quite the reverse. Before us we have the same old collective who have decided to change their programme and ideology.

It is no accident that the word ‘new’ has come into fashion along with the rise of politicians such as Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder. In the 1960s the ‘new left’ had a very clear system of principles that distinguished it from the ‘old left’, embodied in social democracy and communism. Meanwhile, this political definition served to make clear that the new and old left had something in common. At the turn of the 21st century the situation has changed. The idea of the new is used as a substitute for all other ideas, as a symbolic replacement for any positive identification and as an incantation freeing those who utter it from responsibility before the past and future (and, at times, from their consciences as well). Anything whatsoever is justified on the basis of its novelty. To be new, however, does not mean to be better. Moreover, and much more important, ‘new’ does not signify ‘final’. The new becomes the old, and the old, once it has been thoroughly forgotten, becomes the new. References to a ‘new’ programme and ‘new’ ideas are featured precisely when people lack the intellectual and political courage to declare openly just what this programme and these ideas consist of (or when both programme and ideas are lacking).

It is quite clear that Perry Anderson is not a supporter of Tony Blair, as he prudently forewarns us in his preface. In Anderson’s view, Blairism differs little from neo-liberalism. Precisely for this reason, the victory of Blair, Schröder and similar ‘new social democrats’ is proof of the complete and final triumph of neo-liberalism on a global scale. According to Anderson, the old project of transforming the world, the project which inspired the founders of NLR in earlier times, has been exhausted – not because the world has changed, but because there is nothing that can be done about neo-liberalism and capitalism. All attempts at bringing about fundamental change have failed. Society has undergone a consolidation. All that remains for the left is to observe this and to take pleasure in thinking critically about it. Consequently, NLR has to renounce the old traditions and renew itself as well, adapting to the circumstances that have arisen.

Perry Anderson, a sophisticated British gentleman, sits in his cosy office at 6 Meard Street and limply discusses the collapse of the left project. He has enough intellectual honesty not to repudiate his radical past or the ideals of his youth, but he is impassive enough not to lament their collapse. Despite Anderson’s readiness to bury the left project of the 1960s, and along with it the first series NLR, his foreword contains not a paragraph or even a sentence devoted to political self criticism. Everything was fine – both when Perry, together with other young radicals, tried to revolutionise social thinking and political life in Britain, and now, when he no longer proposes to overturn anything whatever. And what, in reality, has happened? What particular suffering has beset these people? Have Western intellectuals really lost anything, apart from their principles? No one has been thrown in prison or put in front of a firing squad. Their homes have not been blown up, nor their cities bombed. They are not teargassed on the streets, they have no problems making ends meet, and they need not stoop to begging publishers to give them free copies of books they cannot afford to buy. Such things are part of the everyday experience of people not just in Eastern Europe and the Third World, but also in the flourishing West. None of this, however, affects the academic elite in any way. For Anderson, the history of socialism is the history of ideas, and furthermore, of ideas that have gone out of fashion. Gramsci has lost his attraction, and Sartre has been forgotten. The new editor of NLR writes of this without regret, while remaining completely unashamed of his radical past, just as a prosperous businesswoman is not ashamed of having worn ragged jeans during her student years. Times change, and so do fashions. As a counterweight to utopian calls for changing society and to hopes of revolution, Perry offers ‘uncompromising realism’. What is the essence of this realism? Accepting the truth of any garbage at all, provided it is published in The Wall Street Journal.

Apart from affirming the collapse of the left movement, the article says nothing of substance. In essence, there is no analysis here. There are neither reflections on the nature of modern capitalism, nor efforts to understand the dynamic and contradictions of globalisation. The ‘analysis’ boils down to recapitulating mainstream editorials; the picture of the world offered by The Wall Street Journal and The Economist is taken for granted, without even the slightest effort at critical reading. At best, this recalls the classic school exercise: read through and retell in your own words. The main source of inspiration in this case is commentators of the neo-liberal school; Perry does not hide his admiration for them. The left, he considers, is now incapable of proposing anything ‘new’:

By contrast, commanding the field of direct political constructions of the time, the right has provided one fluent vision of where the world is going, or has stopped, after another – Fukuyama, Brzezinski, Huntington, Yergin, Luttwak, Friedman. These are writers that unite a single powerful thesis with a fluent popular style, designed not for an academic readership but a broad international public. This confident genre, of which America has so far a virtual monopoly, finds no equivalent on the left. [1]

It is revealing how Anderson’s words repeat, almost verbatim, utterances of Communist Party of the Russian Federation leader Gennady Zyuganov, who has set out to establish in this way the ‘modernity’ of his racist, nationalist and anti-Marxist positions. But this is not what the debate is ultimately about. One might, of course, consider that Huntington has a better style than Anderson, though to be honest I cannot see any difference. The essence, however, lies elsewhere. We are not talking about who commands a bigger print run, or whose sentence structure is more felicitous. In any case, the left has never been short of commentators and popularisers. What is really involved is theoretical discussion requiring a certain intellectual level, and here Fukuyama and Huntington are completely helpless. Twenty years ago, no intellectual considered Brzezinski a serious theoretician. Now, alongside Huntington and the half-forgotten Fukuyama, he has become almost a spiritual mentor for the intellectuals. The success enjoyed by these authors has nothing to do with their merits as thinkers. This is why the phenomenon is so interesting in sociological and culturological terms. This needs to be thought and written about, but Anderson has no intention of doing so. Moreover, he clearly does not intend to allow such absurd and ‘outmoded’ discussions into his journal. Uncompromising realism consists in the absence of the slightest attempt at critical thinking.

Marx considered that philosophers explained the world, while the need was to change it. Anderson considers that it is not necessary even to explain the world, but that it is enough to describe it. In essence, what we have before us is a very refined, gentlemanly form of unconditional capitulation to an ideological foe. Perry breaks his sword and surrenders himself to the mercy of the victor, but as a true gentleman he does this with dignity and style. He does not reflect, of course, on what the victorious enemy will then do with his ‘territorial forces’. The ideologue shuts himself away voluntarily in his ‘ivory tower’. The rest of us, remaining outside, are of no interest to him. Such thinking is born of a total lack of contact with the real movement, and at the same time is used to justify the lack of such contact. The left movement is in crisis, but precisely for this reason – radical action and critical thought are essential as never before. There is a need for an overarching strategy, for principled positions – in the final analysis, for ethical foundations. In place of this, Perry discusses in detail the rules for footnotes in the ‘renewed’ NLR, then goes on to inform us that from now on the journal’s authors will not necessarily be from the ranks of the left. All that remains is to change the name to New Left-Right Review. It is obvious that a gentleman cannot be a labour organiser or a street fighter (though curiously enough, this was possible 20 years ago). No one, however, is demanding that ‘left’ professors mix it with police on the streets. It would be quite satisfactory if they were to busy themselves with their accepted task: thinking critically. Admiration for rightists and calls for intellectual union with them (to judge from everything, on the basis of their positions) is the perfectly logical consequence of a fundamental approach at whose heart is a refusal to critically analyse the myths of neo-liberal capitalism.

Perry has not only managed to ignore the crisis of neo-liberalism in the late 1990s (despite the Russian default, the Zapatista uprising in Mexico, and in the US the rise of a new mass left movement that demonstrated its strength on the streets of Seattle in the autumn of 1999). He even waxes ironic over writers who have observed these phenomena! The crisis of neo-liberalism would be far more acute were it not for the cowardice and treachery of a significant section of the left. The treachery has historical roots, such as the capitulation of the Second International in 1914, but this does not change the ethical character of what has occurred. In one of the stories of Yevgeny Shvarts it is remarked: we have all studied in the school of evil, but who forced you to be a star pupil? The ‘renewed’ leftists have turned out to be the star pupils in the school of neo-liberalism. From this it follows that a renewal of the left is indispensable, not in the mongrel Blair-Schröder-Zyuganov sense, but on the level of a decisive and uncompromising break with such ‘renewers’ and of a turn to the mass movement that is assembling literally before our eyes. The need for an alternative ideology, directed against neo-liberalism, is extremely acute. The radicalism and protest have to acquire a theoretical basis. It would seem to be just the time for the intellectuals to make an impact. But alas, they have nothing to make an impact with.

The most amusing part of Perry’s editorial is its conclusion, where he declares, with impeccable political correctness, that he would welcome more non-Western contributions. Here he continues to rebuke the ‘old’ NLR, which, in his view, failed to open its pages sufficiently to representatives of the non-Western and non English speaking world. It is enough, however, to take from one’s shelves a selection of the ‘old’ NLR to find that the reality was quite different. NLR published authors from Latin America, Eastern Europe, South Korea, India and Africa. For the ‘new’ NLR, meanwhile, serious problems in this regard are inevitable. Why should people from the non-Western world write for a journal that is demonstratively indifferent to the vital questions of their existence? Why should authors who do not belong to the inner circle of trans-Atlantic intellectuals collaborate with a journal whose positions are alien and hostile to them? Perry laments the intellectual narcissism of Anglo-Saxon culture, while himself manifesting it to the fullest extent. A true gentleman, of course, is ready to give a hearing to foreign ideas, but we foreigners are assigned the role of a politically correct decoration or, still worse, of ‘civilised natives’, who are required to insert themselves into a ready made cultural context. It is a quite different matter that there is absolutely no intellectual point to such an operation: why publish foreign authors if they are no different from your own? In an old Soviet joke, the head of the personnel department says, ‘If we give a job to Rabinovich, don’t expect he won’t be a Jew.’ Here it is just the same. If you want to publish authors from the ‘periphery’, then don’t be surprised if they are unimpressed with the vanity and intellectual feebleness of Western ex-radicals.

The ‘old’ NLR did not meet with problems as a result of being published in the West, since it was internationalist in its concept, in its view of the world. The ‘new’ NLR admits from the outset its character as a thoroughly provincial publication, since such a journal is of interest to no one apart from a few hundred former radicals scattered around godforsaken American university campuses. The ‘old’ NLR had something to teach us non-Western leftists, since it represented everything that was best in radical European and American culture. In this sense, the more Anglo-Saxon the journal was, the more interesting we in other countries found it. The ‘renewed’ NLR, to judge from Perry’s editorial, will scarcely be able to offer us anything apart from a retelling, ‘in its own words’, of the articles in The Economist and The Wall Street Journal. But why do we need a retelling, when we can have the original? Politically correct multicultural discourse has nothing in common with a dialogue between cultures. I have no interest in reading a British journal in order to find out the attitude of a fashionable French critic to the modern Chinese cinema. This does not mean that the cinema is unimportant, or that the sociology of culture is uninteresting. The point is simply that there are dozens of journals in English that analyse these matters better, in more detail, more professionally and, most important, without political intellectual intermediaries.

The ‘old’ NLR was an international journal of modern Marxist theory and political analysis, a meeting place for socialist intellectuals. From Perry’s point of view, this project is dead. Millions of people think differently. This, however, is not the point; one person can be right, while millions are mistaken. The point is different: why do we need NLR, when the editor himself has cheerfully and triumphantly buried the original project? If Perry Anderson felt the need for a new journal with a thrust different from the earlier NLR, it would have been more honest for him simply to have shut down the former publication and to have begun a new one. I am reluctant to think that the main reason for keeping the title was a wish to hold onto a familiar brand name. But in acting as he did, Anderson consciously or unconsciously dealt a profound personal affront to large numbers of people whose political and intellectual positions took shape under the influence of NLR. By transferring the old name to a new journal, Perry stole a part of our common past, of our shared history. This can no longer be forgiven. It is good that the design and numbering have been changed: here Anderson has shown his professional honesty. For substantial numbers of authors and readers, this will act as a signal. A familiar, well loved journal no longer exists. It has died, or more precisely, its own parents have killed it. The new journal can seek new readers for itself – among the subscribers to The Wall Street Journal.


1. P. Anderson, Renewals, New Left Review 2:1 (Jan/Feb 2000), p. 19.

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